As Hawaii begins receiving its annual influx of Christmas trees from the mainland, a plant nursery on Oahu is selling a locally grown, native alternative to celebrate the holidays.

Alahee trees, which grow in forests across much of the state, have branches in a symmetrical pattern that’s similar to traditional Christmas trees. The branches are thick enough for ornaments, and the trees grow well in pots so they can be used inside and outside.

Rick Barboza, who co-founded Hui Ku Maoli Ola, a commercial nursery that sells Native Hawaiian and Polynesian-introduced plants, has grown more than 200 alahee this year. He said he was inspired to market them as Christmas trees because they can be reused for generations.

“Growing up, I never liked the idea of buying a dead tree,” Barboza said. “There’s nothing you can do to revive that tree.”

Rick Barboza, co-founder of Hui Ku Maoli Ola, is offering native Hawaiian trees as an alternative to the imported varieties from Oregon and Washington. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

He’s also selling them as a way to promote native plants and sustainability while reducing waste.

Each year, Hawaii imports an average of 250,000 Christmas trees – mostly Douglas or Noble firs – from Oregon and Washington. Those trees often bring unwanted pests and end up being thrown away or burned in illegal bonfires after the holiday season ends.

Helmuth Rogg, administrator of the Department of Agriculture’s Plant Industry Division, said the state expects to receive 170 containers of Christmas trees this year. Last year, 154 containers — each with the capacity to hold up to 3,000 trees — were shipped to the state, Rogg said.

Home Depot Christmas xmas tree for sale.
Christmas trees imported to Hawaii are sold in commercial stores like Home Depot. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Ten containers with 4,973 trees arrived last week, which is earlier than usual. Rogg said the shipments usually come toward the end of November.

“We were a little surprised to see early shipments coming to Hawaii,” Rogg said, pointing to the possibility of climate change affecting the tree growth patterns.

The idea to sell alahee came from Barboza’s frustration over the practice of buying a nonnative Christmas tree every year just to toss it in the green bin once the holidays were over.

He didn’t like the option of buying a plastic version, so he scanned his nursery to find a tree that grew in a radial pattern similar to fir or pine trees. Alahee was the best choice, he said.

In 2015, he tested one for Christmas, allowing his kids to decorate it with festive ornaments. It did so well that he offered trees to some of his friends. The idea was a hit and the demand for the tree grew each year.

This year is the first time that Barboza is advertising the tree for Christmas.

 

The ultimate goal, Barboza said, is to promote indigenous trees in the state while reducing the carbon footprint produced by cargo ships that carry the imported Christmas trees to Hawaii.

“Hopefully, it will be something that can take off in the future,” Barboza said. “But the idea is to have a tree you can reuse or plant and contribute to increasing our native flora that’s been depleting over the last couple of years, but also celebrate our Christmas tradition.”

The alahee can grow as large as 30 feet once planted in the ground. It has glossy green leaves and produces a cluster of white, fragrant flowers that bloom in the spring and early fall.

The Alahee blooms a cluster of flowers every spring and fall.
The alahee tree can be decorated with ornaments at Christmas, but it’s also naturally decorated with flowers that bloom every spring and fall. Courtesy: Rick Barboza

The tree’s name means slippery or wandering fragrance in Hawaiian. In olelo Hawaii, hee means octopus. Barboza said he decorated the tree in fishing lures shaped like octopuses.

Barboza said he’s selling 4-6 foot alahee trees for $175 while smaller versions range from $15 to $45.

While they grow well in pots and require little maintenance, the trees ultimately should be kept outdoors when it’s not the holidays, he said.

“The thing is that it’s not meant to be an indoor tree, but keeping them in your house for a month, as long as there’s a lot of ambient light, there shouldn’t be a problem.”

Upholding Tradition

There are other alternatives to imported Christmas trees in Hawaii. Other local nurseries and businesses sell locally grown Douglas firs, Leyland Cypress and Norfolk pines.

Norfolk pines – originally from Norfolk Island in the South Pacific Ocean – is a top choice for buyers because it can live up to four months after being cut and doesn’t generate mess from pine needles.

But it’s not native to Hawaii.

Some people have questioned why Hawaii should follow the mainland tradition of having firs and pines to celebrate the holidays.

“Why do we need this type of Christmas tree?” said Christy Martin, program director for the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species. “Pine trees are just what was green in Europe when Christmas was starting to be celebrated in this fashion. We don’t need to keep that tradition.”

Left, Kim Cloward walks with mom, Linda Cloward at the Helemano Farms looking for a tree. Over 900 trees were sold on Black Friday so the Cloward’s had a challenging time finding the right size tree for their home.
Norfolk pine is one of the popular Christmas trees locally sold in Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Martin said she applauds Barboza’s effort to promote native trees in Hawaii. “It’s a great time to get people more aware of the native species we have,” she added.

Brian Miyamoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, said it would be great if Hawaii could increase its local Christmas tree production.

According to a 2013 survey titled “Hawaii-Grown Christmas Tree Market Potential,” a majority of Christmas trees sold in Hawaii, 96%, were imported while just 4% were locally grown.

Miyamoto said he’s hoping Barboza’s initiative will gain attention and encourage people to buy locally.

“A local project or an indigenous tree is something that can be an import replacement,” he said.

Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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